Self-Stigma… Am I My Own Worst Enemy?

A discussion with someone recently about the stigma of mental illness as I have personally experienced it, has led me to do some soul searching.   I think both of us eventually came to the same conclusion… that perhaps self-stigma has been the biggest issue for me.  That’s not to say that I haven’t suffered at the hands of the cultural distaste of anything  related to mental illness, or that institutional stigma hasn’t affected me.  There have been times when social stigma has hurt, and often the result has been damaged, if not ended relationships.  But I realise that I have consistently applied self-stigma to myself for as long as I have had a mental illness, actually probably longer and that may have prevented me from getting the help I needed earlier.

The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, in their document Fighting Shadows suggest that self, or internalized stigma is:

“…internalised feelings of guilt, shame, inferiority, and the wish for secrecy experienced by those who live with a mental illness…  Self-stigma is a belief in negative stereotypes about a group to which one belongs and the application of those beliefs to oneself, thereby undermining one’s self-efficacy.” 

(Watson and Corrigan, 2001)

My guess is that what this means is that I internally hold negative ideas about mental illness, which I apply to myself (and that if I was applying those ideas to others then it would be social stigma).  That’s the understanding I’m going to use for now, and I have to say I feel less than comfortable with this thought.  Regular readers know that I have discussed the issue of stigma regularly.  It is something that I feel very strongly about, and wanting to fight it, is the reason behind a lot of the things I do. 

What I need to understand is why I have those stereotypes and why I apply them to myself.  I don’t pretend to think I’m going to satisfactorily answer that for myself here, but it’s a good place to start. 

My mother always used to tell me that I was my own worst enemy.  I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, as Mum and I have never been known to have the sort of conversations that might see that answered.  Reality was more that the statement was made and that was the end of the conversation.  No doubt both of us were contributors to that.

I can remember when I was first diagnosed with depression, one of my most common thoughts was:

“I can accept anyone else having depression

but I can’t accept it in myself.”

Somehow I thought I was immune.  It would never happen to me.  I was 28 at the time and right through my life I had been surrounded by people with mental illnesses.  A lot of that exposure came through my father’s job which extended to having church people in and out of our home.  At high school, I was friends with a girl who had Anorexia.  We were never close, but she was the only person I was aware of in a school of one thousand girls who had a mental illness.  No doubt there were others, but it wasn’t something ever discussed.

When I left school I went straight into a job where I was working closely with a lot of people with mental illness and addiction issues.  Actually I gained a reputation in the office for being one of the few staff who could handle the particularly difficult clients, and so I was often assigned clients that no one else wanted to handle.  I enjoyed working with these people, and other staff couldn’t quite understand that.

Then I got to 28 and discovered I was sitting in a psychiatrist’s office talking about my failing mental health.  Straightaway I could accept it for anyone else, but not for me.  Things like that didn’t happen to me.

I think that all these people with mental illnesses, who surrounded me from a young age, were also a step removed from me.  They weren’t my family, and they weren’t my personal friends.  Mostly they were clients of my father’s or later, my own clients.  It’s almost like it wasn’t personal so it couldn’t affect me personally.  By that time I had a number of friends who had mental illnesses, and again that was perfectly okay.  I could accept their illness and often did a lot to support them.  But that was them, not me.

Why was it okay for them,

but not for me?

At this point I admit that I am guessing.  I don’t understand why I set one rule for others but another for myself.  Why could I have compassion for others, but be angry at myself for what I see as weakness?

What springs to mind is the first person whose mental illness had a direct effect on my wellbeing.  I was only 14 when I became the target of a stalker who had schizophrenia.  He was one of my father’s clients.  Dad would welcome him to our home because he wanted to help the guy.  The problem was that my father didn’t realise what danger he was putting me in.  When I left home at 18, the man followed me, as he did every time I shifted trying to keep one step ahead of him for the next 14 years.

I was literally afraid of this man.  He threatened me ,but never lay a hand on me.  But the damage he did to my mind in that time, along with other things happening in my life, was huge.  Actually it was only nine months after I finally felt I was free from him (by shifting cities) that I was being diagnosed with my own mental illness.  I’m sure that’s not simply a coincidence.

The man was regularly in and out of the local psychiatric hospital because of his illness, usually because he had taken himself off his medication.  The times he was in hospital were the best times for me.  Sometimes I got phone calls or letters, but mostly I was free while he was behind a locked door.

It make senses to me then why the last thing I would want would be to be diagnosed myself, as I might end up in hospital with him.  Even figuratively a diagnosis would put me in the same camp as him.  If I was the same as him, then somehow I was in more danger.

The second thing that comes to mine is that on several occasions I tried to talk to his mental health workers, to help get them to help me be safe from him.  Actually each time I tried I had the Privacy Act quoted at me, and they wouldn’t even listen to me.  I didn’t want information about him.  I wanted them to know what he was doing.  But the mental health system was not interested in the harm he was causing me.  Again it would make sense why I wouldn’t want to diagnosed myself, because clearly (to me anyway) the system was not interested in helping or protecting me.

What you’ve just read is me thinking out loud.  Obviously there is no audio link with this post but I’ll leave you to imagine that I have been tossing ideas with you.  This self stigma hindered me from getting help from medical services but even when I began to accept that actually it was okay for me to have a mental illness, I perhaps unconsciously  used the stigma to make it hard for myself to get other types of help.  There was a lot of help at university for people with disabilities, including mental illness, but I struggled to seek it out because I didn’t look sick.  It was me that put that barrier up, no one else.

Considering self stigma is not an easy one.  I am a little embarrassed, but I wonder how many others might struggle, unknowingly even, with our own attitudes that prevent us getting the help and support we need.  It doesn’t take away the problem of the stigma we get from other sources, but I’m realising that I have to start with myself.  How can I expect others not to stigmatize me when I do it to myself?

Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.” 

―    Elizabeth Gilbert


34 thoughts on “Self-Stigma… Am I My Own Worst Enemy?

  1. John Richardson

    Thanks for sharing! I’m sure this post will help a lot of people. Most of us think we are frauds and it always does us good to realize many folks feel the same way. It makes us feel more “normal” whatever that means. I think your post will work the same way. I also think that it’s important to remember how important self-confidence is to each of us. The fact is, at least it’s a fact as I see it, most of us get our self-confidence early on from others. Before we have enough of our own experience we depend upon others to believe that we can do it. We pick up their confidence in us and carry on. Many times we can be overally critical of what we do, think and say. Our own blindspots are always the hardest to see. And while we may be able to frogive others quite easily sometimes it’s not as easy to forgive ourselves. If you’re too focused on what you think of yourself maybe you should pick three or four folks you know well and trust and try to get an idea of how you look to them through their eyes. It might be a much more obective look. God Bless!

    1. Thanks for that John. You make an interesting point which I needed to think about before replying. I think I have regularly struggled with feeling like a fraud in my life, perhaps even more so before I was diagnosed with my mental illness. That said, I don’t think that was the issue this time. I think I just didn’t think I could ever be safe if I allowed myself to accept my mental illness. Thankfully I’ve come a long way, with a lot of help, but I certainly think it was the problem in the beginning. Thanks for your comments.

  2. self-stigma is something that I’ve been dealing with since I was diagnosed with bipolar 3 years ago. Most of the time I am very kind to myself and understand what I need to do to remain healthy and stable. I am pretty open about it. Other times I cower in fear that I might be “found out” by someone that is important to me…like classmates or professors…although some do know and don’t seem to treat me any different. Just this weekend, our priest was anointing people with illness. I was so afraid to go up because of what I thought others would think because I don’t look sick.

    1. Hi Shelly. Actually i totally get what you’re saying and suspect I would have been afraid to go up too. That said I’m wondering whether you could ask the priest if he would do this for you privately. I had that once and found it helpful and so much less threatening when I wasn’t worrying about what people were thinking. It would be a shame to miss out on something that you might find very helpful. I know that I have missed out on things for that reason. Hopefully I’m learning so that I let myself have what is good (even if I don’t look sick).

  3. this is so very good. i didn’t realize until i read this that i do the same thing. i have a hard time even saying that what i struggle with are mental health issues…at least i think they are. (PTSD & BDD) i feel embarassed and like i don’t want to be a burden to anyone. thank you for this post!

    1. I’m glad it helped. It was a difficult post to write just because I was challenging my own beliefs, but if it has helped someone else then I think it was worth it. 🙂

  4. I do believe that self stigma/discrimination is the worst.

    For me, it comes down to the simple fact that if I care about myself then it doesn’t matter what others do to me but if I don’t care then everything will hurt me.

  5. Write4Publish

    I think struggling with and getting through mental illness is a chance to progress spiritually; that’s why we’re given it (I believe take it on) in the first place. Going inwards through meditation has been my way to progress, as well as sharing and being honest with yourself. Keep up the sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think you’re right in that I know my own spirirtual journey has developed greatly as I have dealt with my mental illness. It hasn’t always been a conscious thing, but I certainly know that I am changed. 🙂

  6. Very thought provoking, Cate! How horrible for you to have a stalker. 😦 And i’m not at all surprised that he left you with some scars. I remember reading the three faces of Eve story – the first woman ever to make headlines as a multiple personality. I remember how the psychiatrist who dealt with her told her she was not insane. He said that her mind, faced with a mother who was genuinely insane and abusive, helped her to survive by creating different persona. So I suspect that faced with any extreme trauma we do scar, but we do also find ways to survive. And so for you, once the stalker left, you were able to indulge in the lucxury of a bit of shock/nervous collapse maybe? Since only then could you relax and let go of that constant need to be alert – survival instinct. ? Does that make sense? I’m not sure… it sounded better in my head. LOL I just know that i’ve dealt with low grade stalking and it was VERY stressful and I thought i’d be so relieved and free when it stopped but instead I just felt shattered and weak. Like I’d been paddling madly so as not to drown and when I finally reached dry land instead of dancing I just collapsed.

    As for the stigma thing… I think most people would rather help others than see ourselves needing help and we’re happier helping someone ill/disabled than seeing ourselves that way. Four years ago our local job centre recommended that I try out for physical disability. I was horrified and said, “NO”, because the thought of stepping into the “UNWELL” label scared me more than anything. It’s like admitting you’re the victim, admitting weakness. It’s very scary

    Thanks for sharing, Cate. You got me thinking!!

    1. Thanks for your comments Michelle. I think that you’re right that we to a certain extent collapse emotionally when we don’t have to be on guard anymore. Actually it’s only so many years later that I can see that’s what happened. I had other stuff going on in my life when I got sick and that ws always blamed. Now I can see that it all contributed. I totally understand what you mean about admitting weakness too. It’s hard. We are taught by society to be strong and not show our weakness. In some ways it kind of sets us up to fail sometimes.

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  9. Thank you for sharing your experiences Cate. I think I probably self stigmatise because I hate admitting I am even struggling with physical illness never mind the PTSD I suffer from. I was reminded only today that I prefer to be the one helping than be helped, the one supporting than be the one supported. Yet I view others differently if they seek help or support or admit they have a mental illness I think they are brave, courageous but I would rather hide what is going on with myself. I was taught too well from an early age to wear my mask of a smile and then a few negative experiences of daring to reveal what was behind the mask led me to keep the mask on even more tightly. My blog tends to be the one place I let my mask down to a certain extent and even then because it is anonymous. Sad really. However one day I hope to be strong enough to take that mask off and then also blog without hiding behind the anonimity.

    1. I so get what you’re saying and unfortunately I was taught the same way, and when tragedy struck it didn’t pay off. I think it’s great that you have found a place in your blog where you can be open, and I don’t see it as sad that it’s anonymous. It still will be helpful to many people, as well as being helpful to you. If the anonymity comes off one day then I know that will be hard, but it’s only worth doing it if and when you feel totally ready. meantime try not to feel bad about it. It’s just the way it needs to be.

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    1. Miss Kiwi reporting for duty after being missing in action. I admit I have been being a typical kiwi (of the bird variety) and burrowing in the undergrowth and dark places. I am also having terrible trouble trying to take thoughts from my head and translate them onto the screen. Hopefully today will be better. But Kevin, thank you for your concern. That means the world to me,

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  14. I totally get this. A few years back, I would have rather die than admit in public I had a mental illness. Then I started blogging and that has helped me greatly to accept myself and be kind to myself in living with mental illness. That gave me the strength to become very vocal about mental illness (mine and others’) and the stigma around it.

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  16. Steven

    I know what you mean. Many of my friends have had mental illnesses and I’ve helped them through as best I could, non-judgementally and with kindness. But for myself I reserve the harshest of criticism, even as I write this I still feel like a fraud, that everyone will think I’m lying, it really does tear my mind apart on top of the depression and anxiety. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. It’s a hard thing to live with, isn’t it? I’ve lived with that ‘fraud’ feeling most of my life. Even before mental illness became a factor in my life, I was always worried that one day someone would discover the fraud that I was. I hope that one day you and I will find freedom from this ball and chain around our necks. I hope one day we will find some peace. Good luck.

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